The foundations of merchants’ quarters at Lattara, dated c.525-474 BC, in which imported Etruscan amphorae were found (inset). Photo: Michel Py, © UFRAL.

Wine was introduced to France from Italy, with the first Gaulish vintages produced in c.500 BC, according to newly-published chemical analysis. 

Archaeological work at Lattara, a port in southern France dated to c.525-475 BC, uncovered a number of imported Etruscan amphorae stylistically linked to Cisra in central Italy.

Chemical analysis of residues found within these revealed tartaric acid/tartrate: the signature compound of the Eurasian grape used to make wine in the Middle East and Mediterranean.  Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these findings, represent the earliest-known biomolecular evidence of grape wine in France. The drink had been flavoured with herbs, including rosemary and basil and/or thyme, all native to central Italy.

‘France’s rise to world prominence in the wine culture has been well documented, especially since the 12th century, when the Cistercian monks determined by trial-and-error that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were the best cultivars to grow in Burgundy,’ said project leader Dr Patrick McGovern of the Penn Museum. ‘What we have not previously had is clear chemical evidence, combined with botanical and archaeological data, showing how wine was introduced into France and initiated a native industry.’

The ancient pressing platform from Lattara. Seen from above, the spout for drawing off liquid can be clearly seen. Photo: Michel Py, © UFRAL.

He added: ‘Now we know that the ancient Etruscans lured the Gauls into the Mediterranean wine culture by importing wine into southern France. This built up a demand that could only be met by establishing a native industry, likely done by transplanting the domesticated vine from Italy, and enlisting the requisite winemaking expertise from the Etruscans.’

The Lattara excavation also revealed the earliest evidence for when the Gauls began to make wine for themselves: a limestone platform, found close to the port and dated to c.425 BC. While the surface’s function had initially been unclear, traces of tartaric acid/tartrate in the limestone indicated that it had been used as a wine press – something corroborated by the discovery of several thousand domesticated grape seeds, stems, and skins, in earlier soil layers close to the press.

Viniculture is thought to have its roots in the Near East some 9,000 years ago, while the earliest chemical evidence for wine is found at Hajji Firiz in northern Iran, dated to c.5400-5000 BC.